Nominees Brennan, Hagel Should Face Key Human Rights Questions

Washington, D.C. – Following President Obama’s nominations of Senator Chuck Hagel to Secretary of Defense and John Brennan to CIA Director, Human Rights First urges the Senate to engage in a robust examination of U.S. human rights policies during the upcoming confirmation processes.   Both nominees play key roles in projecting U.S. leadership and have long histories of accomplishments in foreign policy and national security.  As the United States grapples with implementing counter-terrorism policies consistent with human rights norms, as well as challenges in the Middle East, a “re-balancing” of assets in Asia, and the prevention of mass atrocities, Human Rights First recommends that senators address the following topics in its questioning of the nominees:

Counter-terrorism policy

  • Significant challenges remain in instituting a targeted killing program that is conducted transparently and in accordance with the law. The United States isn’t going to be the only country with a lethal drone program, and the next CIA Director and Secretary of Defense will need to express a commitment to a targeted killing program that is lawful, ethical, and in the national security interest of the United States.   The hearings are an opportunity to outline the principles and guidelines of the program.
  • The next CIA Director will also have to face the agency’s unaccounted for legacy of torture and detainee abuse.   Last month, the Senate intelligence committee adopted the study with the support of Senators Snowe and McCain and a group of retired generals and admirals.  It is now being reviewed by the Obama Administration. The nominee should  be asked how he will work with the Senate intelligence committee as it works to implement lessons learned from its recently adopted torture report. The nominee should also answer whether he will support the committee’s findings and the public release of its study – one with as few redactions as possible – in order to ensure that the U.S. never returns to a policy of torture and official cruelty again.
  • Guantanamo must continue to be a key priority for the next Secretary of Defense.  As 27 of the nation’s most respected generals and admirals have emphasized, the Obama Administration can make progress on closing Guantanamo by using flexibility in current law to transfer those detainees that have been cleared for transfer but face congressionally-imposed transfer restrictions. The next Secretary of Defense should commit to certifying the transfers of those detainees that have already been unanimously cleared for transfer by the relevant intelligence and security agencies.

Middle East

  • The Arab Spring of 2011 and the unrest that has gripped much of region since then has swept aside or called into question many of the old certainties of U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa built around alliances and relationships with autocratic and dictatorial regimes.  Past support of discredited dictatorships has contributed to widespread suspicion of U.S. motives and goals among the peoples of the region.  The next Secretary of Defense must make clear that U.S. vital security interests will be best served by building relationships of mutual interest and mutual respect with legitimate, representative, democratic governments and that therefore a sustained, consistent policy of promoting democratic change throughout the region serves the national interest of the United States.  The U.S. government should use its close relations with military establishments in several key countries in the region to promote the peaceful democratic transitions in each of them.
  • In Bahrain, the U.S. is faced with a challenge that is often — incorrectly — framed as a choice between stability and human rights.  The presence of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in a country simmering with violence and mass arrests on a daily basis requires U.S. leadership to support calls for reform and respect for human rights in the interest of stability.  The next Secretary of Defense should be asked how the U.S. will pursue human rights and stability in Bahrain and help prevent an escalation of violence into full-fledged chaos.


  • The next Secretary of Defense should be fully engaged in the rebalancing of U.S. assets in the Asia-Pacific theater.  As the U.S. seeks to ease Chinese skepticism that this pivot constitutes a challenge to its influence, there is concern that the United States will try to avoid other confrontational issues, such as human rights.  Rather, the U.S. should be integrating human rights concerns throughout its relations with China, including its relationships through the Department of Defense.  The next secretary should be asked how he will work to advance human rights in China, and work with China to not be an obstacle to human rights strategies, such as in Syria.

Mass Atrocities

  • President Obama established the Atrocities Prevention Board last year to dedicate the full resources of the U.S. government to stem mass atrocities.  Intelligence collection and analysis are key to identifying threats of mass atrocities and developing effective responses. The next CIA Director should be asked how he plans to participate in this process, including allocating adequate resources for the new Mass Atrocity National Intelligence Estimate and the Worldwide Threat Assessment.
  • The next Secretary of Defense should also be asked about his priority on atrocity prevention.  The Department of Defense, through the Office for Rule of Law and Detainee Policy, is developing a Mass Atrocities Prevention and Response Operation (MAPRO) that focuses on how the military can identify imminent mass atrocities and help prevent them before military intervention is the only option.  The new secretary should commit to establishing and resourcing this important program.
  • In addition, the Department of Defense should leverage its position as a consumer to ensure that the U.S. government maintains procurement practices that support atrocity prevention principles, rather than support enablers of mass atrocities.  The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012 includes a provision that prohibits Department of Defense contracts with Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms agency that is fueling Syria’s regime attacks on civilians while in a $1 billion contract  with the Pentagon.  The new secretary should be asked to adopt a regulation in the Defense Acquisition Regulations System to prohibit activities with state-owned enterprises, commercial entities, and individuals that enable mass atrocities.

Private Contractors

  • The next Secretary of Defense should commit to U.S. engagement in the Voluntary Principles and the International Code of Conduct of Private Security Providers on the condition that credible, independent, and transparent accountability mechanisms are installed.

Published on January 7, 2013


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